Walking the tightrope, toeing the line – YA and the duty of care

Of all the myths and misconceptions about YA, few are quite as pervasive as the idea that every YA book is one of two things: fluffy and trivial or dark and depressing. For every thinkpiece deriding adults for reading silly YA stories and therefore somehow dumbing down literature as an art form, there is another article wringing its hands that YA is “too dark”. Plenty of journalists and commentators have spent earnest paragraphs trying to decide once and for all what counts as “too dark” for teenagers, as if that darkness is something that exists only within the pages of books; that the power to shield young people from emotional traumas belongs to writers and librarians and booksellers.

Even if YA books about depression, suicide, drug use, murder, death and rape ceased to exist, these things will still happen in real life. To teenagers. Teenagehood is essentially an isolating experience, even for the most social of young people, and experiences like mental illness or personal trauma only exacerbate this. We know that young people who are suffering seek out stories that speak to them; depressed teenagers read books about depressed teenagers; suicidal teens will read books about suicidal teens, and so on. They are looking for reflections of their lives and experiences; they are looking, consciously or not, for guidance; hope; answers. Denying them this need is just another way of turning our backs on suffering under the guise of protection.

The duty of care within YA is a contentious issue in and of itself, with some arguing it is a necessity unique to authors of books for children and teenagers, while others say that writers should have the freedom to express topics without worrying about gatekeepers. It is my view that both of these things are true; the answer is, as so often, a bit of both.

The heart of the solution is, to my mind, truth. Writing is all about the truth of experience, whether or not it is in a book about a young wizard, a roof-skipping orphan girl or a teenage assassin in an imagined royal court. Stories come to life when they feel real, and this is the case for all genres and age ranges of books. It is this very thing that causes such problems in so-called “issue books”. If you are writing about suicide, how truthful should you be? Does a duty of care mean you are duty-bound to write a happy ending? Are you failing your readers if you don’t?

Suicide in YA has been something of a trend over the last couple of years, with books like All The Bright Places, I Was Here and My Heart And Other Black Holes all dealing with the subject in very different ways. They tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Will this character die?
  • This character’s friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/family member has already died and this is the aftermath.

The former is by the far the most popular, for the simple reason that it tends to make a better page-turner. It’s also a nice formula for a twist. Ha! You thought she’d die, didn’t you? Gotcha. Oh, you thought he’d live? Surprise! Enjoy your tears.

If done right, these books can cut like a knife – in a good way. If you’ve experienced these kinds of thoughts, reading them in someone else’s mind can make you feel less alone, even as it hurts. Through the character’s experience, you can begin to recognise the possibility you have in your own life; how you could do things differently. This can change a teenager’s whole life.

Done wrong, these books can read like how-to manuals or exercises in emotional manipulation. They can feel cheap, cruel or even downright dangerous. You imagine a lonely teen, arms scarred, head full of pills and razors, reading a book about suicide and finding only hopeless darkness. If she was doomed, then so am I. This isn’t scaremongering: this is a real danger, made even worse by books that go into frankly horrifying detail about potential methods and scenarios.

I think we need books about suicidal teenagers as much as we do happy ones, but it’s true that they carry an extra burden of responsibility. Pretending otherwise is to deny the power we have as writers to an audience still learning who they are. We can do this without patronising them or denying them their own experiences. On the contrary, we can honour them with counter-narratives and hope.

It does a disservice to the depth and integrity of YA to focus so much on whether an ending is happy or sad; as in all fiction, what matters is that an ending is earned and feels true. Sometimes people live and sometimes they die, in real life and on the page; not all stories can end happily. But there’s always room for a sense of hope and it is this that can make all the difference. In darkness, even the smallest light can brighten a room.

The Unknowable Teenage Girl: When Fandom and Politics Collide

I love teenage girls. I love them with the affection of an older sister and the nostalgia of a once-was. I love their spirit and fire and wit and imagination. I love their energy and loyalty and humour. I love how they are remaking the world, even as it tries so hard to contain them within its borders and limitations and rules.

As a writer of YA, I’ve often been asked – with genuine bewilderment – why teenage girls?, as if teenagehood represents some kind of a subspecies of humanity instead of an age range we have all lived through. But there is an assumption in our society – sometimes implicit, often brazen – that something created for teenage girls is intrinsically lesser. It must be easier; it must be frivolous; it must be, y’know, like all emotional and stuff? Oh em gee, babes, and the like. Hashtag, what is life.

This is patent nonsense, of course. Teenage girls contain multitudes, just like teenage boys do. Just like adult women do. Just like we all do. There are countless stories to tell about them and for them. Stories that are light and dark and hope and shade; love and tears and life and death.

Last month, the story of the General Election took an unexpected turn thanks to the wit and wiles of a 17 year old student called Abby. She didn’t like the relentless attempts of much of the media to portray Ed Miliband so negatively and decided to tackle this with the truest 21st century weapons that a teenage girl can have: a hashtag and a sense of righteousness.

My favourite thing about the Milifandom phenomenon is how unpredictable it was. Not a single one of the brains behind the Labour campaign would have even dreamed of presenting Ed Miliband as an object of affection, let alone to girls under 18 – who can’t even vote.

But the reason the Milifandom took off and succeeded as it did was because of exactly this. It was spontaneous and genuine, and there is something utterly irresistible about that. Amongst all the contrivances of any election campaign, here was something truly grass-roots. For all the attempts that were made to dig up some dirt on the irrepressible Abby, to undermine her intelligence and sneer at her enthusiasm, no conspiracy or puppetry has come to light. This is so baffling to many – particularly (but not exclusively) the Old White Man – that the only solution is to patronise and dismiss. Oh, those teenage girls with their incomprehensible language and stupid slang.

This article, printed in the Guardian of all places, typifies this response. It does not attempt to understand the origins of the Milifandom and the very valid reasons for its success, because why would it? It’s just teenage girls. Instead it turns the whole thing into a joke at the expense of the very people it should be celebrating, and in doing so reinforces the most fortified of cultural myths that batter teenage girls generation by generation: this does not matter, because it matters to you.

When Zayn Malik left One Direction, the news had barely broken before the mocking tweets and thinkpieces about broken-hearted girls and their silly obsessions began, as if grown men were not throwing their toys out of the pram on the very same day because Jeremy Clarkson had been (rightfully) sacked from Top Gear. This dissonance matters because it is explicitly telling girls that their grief (and yes, it is a kind of grief) and their feelings are somehow invalid. And worse,fodder for mockery.

For me, all of this comes down to the fact that adults – particularly adult men – just don’t understand teenage girls. It is this unknowability that makes them frightening and unpredictable, and dangerous. A 17 year old girl with a Twitter account can change the narrative of an entire election. And she did it against the full force of a media rolling its eyes at her impertinence and silliness.

And this is the saddest thing. Just imagine what all the other teenage girls could achieve if they were encouraged to believe that what they want and love and hope for matters.

The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet) – Rose Under Fire


This is the second post in a series: The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet)

Rose Under Fire is the accompanying novel to the phenomenal Code Name Verity, and it is this connection that has caused RUF to fall somewhere under the radar. Code Name Verity is so brilliant – and so beloved – that the conversation tends to begin and end with said brilliance. When you use up so many superlatives for a book, there are few left for the one that comes next.

But make no mistake: Rose Under Fire is brilliant too. Maybe (gasp!) even more so.

Part of what makes Code Name Verity so good is the core friendship between Queenie and Maddie. The exploration of female friendship is done so beautifully, and with such truth, that its heart seems to beat right out of the pages.

Rose Under Fire takes this core theme and doubles, triples and quadruples it. The book is about female friendship, love and strength forged in the fire of unimaginable pain and trauma. So many war novels focus on male bonding in the horrors of war. This (finally!) is the female version and it is so, so good.

The eponymous Rose is an 18 year old American pilot who has come to Britain to help the war effort, ferrying planes across UK skies. One mistake lands her on German soil, and she is taken to Ravensbruck, a women’s concentration camp in northern Germany. It is 1944.

I didn’t know much about Ravensbruck before I read RUF, and so its weight as a historical novel is one of its most important aspects for me. I knew so little about the women of Ravensbruck, what brought them there, how they survived. I didn’t know about the Polish rabbits or taran pilots or the underground resistance. We know so much about the experience of the fighting men during wartime – especially WW2 – but where are the women? Thank you, Elizabeth Wein, for bringing them to life so beautifully.

She barked an order at the guards. They’d sent extras, expecting a fight. She took hold of a dog’s leash and started prowling among the first rows of silent, stubborn language professors and music teachers and widowed mothers and orphaned daughters, and projectionists and spies and bartenders and cleaning ladies and Resistance agents and Red Army soldiers and Girl Scout saboteurs. And taran pilots.

Did I convince you? You can find Rose Under Fire here

NB: You don’t have to have read Code Name Verity in order to read Rose Under Fire. Chronologically, it does come after, but it works perfectly as a standalone.

The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet) – Vivian Versus the Apocalypse

Look at that beautiful cover.

This is the first post in a series: The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet)

I found out about Vivian Versus the Apocalypse (Katie Coyle’s debut) via a chance post on tumblr that found its way onto my dashboard, and I’m very, very glad I did. I assumed when I first heard about the book – and even more so after I read it – that it was destined to become one of Those YA Books. You know the ones. The ones that crop up in every YA conversation and take one of the top spots on Best Of lists.

It’s strange to me that this hasn’t happened, because Vivian is a brilliant book. In a market as busy and varied as YA, it’s hard to find books that have a truly original premise. Vivian, which features the eponymous teenage heroine facing a world seemingly in the grips of a religious apocalypse, is startlingly original. Yes, end of the world scenarios have been done to death, but I tell you what. They haven’t been done like this.

Vivian features all the expected components of an apocalypse story: there’s the left behind lot bandied together and struggling to survive; sudden and jarring acts of violence and murder; strange weather occurrences; the yes-the-world-is-ending-but-I-still-want-to-kiss-you subplot (emphasis on subplot, thank the storytelling gods); and the cross-country journey for against-the-odds answers.

But here’s what else Vivian has: brilliant secondary characters (Harp!), amazing Rapture/capitalist/Bible puns (“Lot’s jeans. Go ahead, turn around” made me laugh out loud in an airport), Doctor Who references, thoughtful but not invasive questions about religion and capitalism, a sledgehammer-wielding protagonist and the kind of opening chapter that makes you want to grab the person nearest to you and shout “ZOMG!” in their face.

I suspect that the reason Vivian is still relatively under the radar is because it hasn’t yet been released in the US. When that happens – January 2015, I believe, with the new title Vivian Apple at the End of the World – I’m sure it will indeed become one of Those YA Books. How can it not?

If I’ve convinced you (and if I haven’t, what else do you want?!), you can find your own copy by clicking right here on this link.

The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet)

YA has become big blogging business recently, after incidents like That Slate Piece, Caitlin Moran’s ill-judged comments on girls in YA and the release of the TFIOS movie that spawned a hundred think pieces. On balance, these kinds of articles can only be good for YA. For every comment that suggests YA fiction is somehow unworthy or lesser than “real” fiction (answers on a postcard as to what that even means), there are a hundred readers, writers and general enthusiasts to point out why this is clearly not the case.

The best way to do this is usually to name books. Books that are the shining stars of YA; the bestsellers and award-winners; the books that make you sputter a recommendation with breathless, evangelical zeal. The same titles tend to come up again and again: We Were Liars. The Hunger Games. Code Name Verity. Eleanor and Park. The Fault in our Stars. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. There’s good reason for this, and that is that they are all brilliant books. But they’re not the only brilliant books.

So, with the aforementioned evangelical zeal, I’ve picked a handful of my very favourite YA novels over the last few years that I think deserve more readers, more praise and more nods in Top 10 lists. To avoid this post getting too long, I’ll put them up individually over the next few weeks and add the links below.

Do let me know if there are any YA books you think fly too low under the radar. I’m always more than happy to add to my tottering to-read pile.

1) Vivian Versus the Apocalypse , Katie Coyle (Hot Key Books, 2013)

2) Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein (Electric Monkey, 2013)

Not-so-absent girls, the champions of YA and what Caitlin Moran should read

Anyone who reads or writes young adult fiction will have had that conversation.

“But… why teenagers?”

You explain, trying to temper your enthusiasm and the urge to grab the listener’s arm and scream “CODE NAME VERITY! WE WERE LIARS!” in their face, but still you remain braced for their inevitable, dubious reference to sparkly vampires or, if they’re a touch more informed, arrow-wielding dystopian heroines. That an entire canon of YA literature exists, of which Twilight and The Hunger Games are simply a part, will likely never have crossed their minds.

It’s not news that YA as a section of literature is mischaracterised and misunderstood, but it was still a surprise to see Caitlin Moran make the same tired mistakes last week in an interview with the Bookseller. Not surprised because of the same incorrect clichés coming to light once again, but surprised because they came from someone bringing out a YA novel of her own.

In the interview, Moran talked enthusiastically about her upcoming novel How to Build a Girl, which apparently centres around a “funny, weird teenage girl” having “sex adventures”. Moran emphasised the importance of teenage girls having access to frank, honest material about sex. So far, so good.

Moran’s mistake was to go on to boldly proclaim that this kind of writing didn’t already exist and, in the process, completely mischaracterise YA fiction as being “always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures”. Moran’s intention is to correct this perceived imbalance and the absence of girls (“unless they’re being bitten by vampires”) with her novel. This is no doubt a worthy aim, if such a problem actually existed.

Young adult literature is, in fact, full of “funny, weird” teenage girls having adventures of all kinds. Historical adventures, contemporary adventures, paranormal adventures, sexy adventures. Adventures with boys and without them. Adventures with humour and heart and a few life lessons occasionally thrown in for good measure. In this sense, it is just like adult literature. The only difference is the age of the protagonists.

YA is, at best, patronised in the mainstream media and, at worst, outright ignored, precisely because it is written for and loved by teenagers, most of whom are female. This is a deadly mix for a media that traditionally has little time for teenage culture (unless it requires hand-wringing) and a superiority complex about anything deemed “women’s interests”. How could YA be seen as anything but wholly lesser than any and all other fiction? Aren’t teenagers just smaller, stupider versions of adults? Isn’t anything marketed to them inferior by default? Why would anyone have heard about it?

Moran’s real error was to assume that the lack of discussion about books championing quirky teenage girls and their sexy adventures meant such books didn’t exist. With no representation of young adult fiction in the mainstream media, the disconnect between the perception of YA and the reality is not a surprise. Even less surprising is the impulse to fill in the blanks with cultural stereotypes. Young adult fiction must be about teenage boys having adventures while girls remain invisible, because isn’t that the case in countless (grown up) books and film and stories from every day life? The problem isn’t that Caitlin Moran made this mistake. The problem is that it’s a mistake that is so easy to make, and one that is continually perpetuated by incidents exactly like this.

The YA community, made up of readers, writers and appreciators of all ages, was quick to respond to this mischaracterisation of their field. Keris Stainton, herself an author of several YA novels containing funny, weird teenage girls and frank discussions about sex, started the hashtag #caitlinmoranshouldread, with recommendations of books that prove to Moran why her statements were not just ill-advised, but actually completely false.

Even in the US, where the YA market is bigger and more established, YA fiction is only just starting to be considered by the media. Publications like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are starting to sit up and take notice, printing reviews and profiles of leading authors, as well as the occasional think piece about the so-called “rise” of YA (Judy Blume who?). But this new scrutiny is not without its problems. YA hasn’t been picked up by the press because its cultural worth and literary merit has suddenly been recognised. It’s been picked up because of the John Green Effect.

John Green is that most prized of literary things: a white, male, middle class writer of realistic fiction.  To be clear, he’s a very good one. His novels, most recently The Fault in our Stars, are bestsellers all over the world, with a film adaptation due for release next month and millions of subscribers on his various YouTube channels. As an advocate and champion for YA, they don’t come much more successful and beloved than John Green.

John Green is not the problem.

The problem isn’t even that it took the success of John Green to convince the mainstream media that YA was worth talking about. The problem is that as these discussions begin to take place in the pages of mainstream publications, the erasure begins. Reading these articles, you’d be forgiven for thinking YA just didn’t exist until John Green arrived on the scene. The pioneers of YA, from Laurie Halse Anderson to Sarah Dessen to Meg Cabot, are all but forgotten. In one instance, Judy Blume’s incalculable contribution was written off in a dismissive line raising an eyebrow at the failure of her books to be made into films (never mind the fact that this decision was made by Judy Blume herself).

This matters because it perpetuates the entrenched impression that women’s contributions do not matter, and the only way for writing or art or thought to gain mainstream recognition is to be spearheaded by a man. Caitlin Moran may have bold ideas about redressing an imbalance, but by virtue of her femaleness history teaches us she won’t be the gamechanger she thinks YA needs.

The true imbalance isn’t within the books themselves. It isn’t the gender of the protagonists or the amount of sex contained within the pages. The imbalance comes down to true value and perceived value. Books that matter and books that don’t. People who matter and people who don’t. Until this imbalance is addressed, it doesn’t matter how many funny feminists throw their weight behind YA. Because, sadly, it’s just not that much weight at all.